BindleSnitch Editorial: Truth or Consequences

ISIS has executed a second Frenchman, Mickael Dos Santos, 22, according to an execution video released today. While an unknown number of Syrians, Lebanese, and Kurds, not to mention other Iraqis, have been executed by the outlaw regime, three Americans, and two British subjects have been executed in addition to the two Frenchmen, bringing the total of European and American victims to seven, including two American journalists and an American aid worker.

(Editors Note: The man in the picture above is James Foley. We do not yet have any verified images of Mikael Dos Santos, and our editorial policy prohibits the use of images without positive identification.  In addition,BindleSnitch will not publish any depictions of these executions on the grounds that they are already getting too much publicity from those images.  The public has a right to know, but we have a right not to pander to the widespread thirst for sensationalism.  We all know what a beheading looks like. Let’s move on.) 

The dead include James Foley, an American freelance photojournalist, Steven Sotloff, an Israeli-American reporter who worked for Time Magazine and The Jerusalem Post, David Cawthorne Haines, a British aid worker, another British aid worker, Alan Henning, and Peter Kassig, an American aid worker. The French victims include Dos Santos and French mountaineer Herve Goudel.

While the brutality of the videotaped mass execution appeals to the morbid curiosity of the viewing public, the continued distribution of the execution videos raises questions about the journalistic ethics involved in the mass distribution of “snuff films” under the guise of journalistic “responsibility.”

Against the backdrop of Ashton Kutcher’s recent Twitter diatribe against a reporter who raised questions about Uber, the alternative taxi service in which Kutcher is an investor, this might be a good time to ask the question, “Who watches the watchers?”

In the media, the short answer to that question has always been that the watchers watch each other for the simple reason that there is no one else to watch them unless it is the courts and the government, which smacks of repression and censorship, or the people, who may not be qualified if they are getting their information from the self-same internet they wish to police. In the end, it is all opinion.

In Kutcher’s case, the suggestion that the appropriate response to a reporter’s investigation is to slander the reporter leads inevitably to repression, because that is what happens when reporters and news organizations start to censor themselves for fear of becoming the victims of reprisals by the people they wrote about. At the same time, however, the members of the media have to stop and ask themselves whether they are doing the devil’s work when they pick up and distribute execution videos released by ISIS or any other outlaw regime.

During the season premiere of The Newsroom on HBO, executive producer Aaron Sorkin raised the very thorny subject of the reliability of “citizen journalism,” citing the example of how certain people with large followings on social media tagged the wrong people as the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. This forced the Boston Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to go on the record to the extent of announcing that the named individuals were in no way implicated in the bombing.

The point is well-taken. Just as a complete unknown can become an overnight celebrity simply because they have a large Twitter following, so too can a private individual become a public figure almost instantaneously simply by being erroneously named as a perpetrator of a heinous crime by someone with such a following.

Together, these three intersecting points – the release of yet another repetitious execution video, a rant by a television actor about having his pet bull gored by a reporter, and Sorkin’s thoughtful essay about the unregulated power of the internet – raise questions about the continuing effects of information pollution on our intellectual environment.

Data can be true or false. Facts are subject to interpretation. Information is often incomplete and incomplete information is often misleading, to the point where Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quip, “you are entitled to your own opinions but no one is entitled to their own facts,” may no longer be true.

Today, people with diametrically opposed ideas (not to mention ideals) can find support for their irreconcilable opinions in the results from the very same internet search. So, if more and more people are turning to the internet to find support for their opinions and those people are each finding documentary support for their diametrically opposed beliefs, then exactly how trustworthy is the device we are using to collect and disseminate information?

Let’s face some facts about these execution videos.  ISIS is using these videos as recruitment advertising.  Troubled young people see the videos and make their way to ISIS-held territories to get in on the fun.  Yes, fun.  They think it is fun because they have been raised in the computer age, where the line between the real and the imaginary has been blurred to extinction. What we are really watching when we view these videos are initiation rituals. The increasing number and diversity of the executioners should illustrate that, if nothing else does. If you want to know why the influence of groups like ISIS appears to be growing, look in the mirror.  We are part the problem because publishers and advertisers take note of what we are watching, and the more attention we pay to groups like ISIS, the more those groups will grow.  Attention generates power.

In the end, all information is really only a gathering of opinions, and opinions about opinions. While data miners might argue this point, the fact remains that the data they are mining are opinions, not objective facts, and it is quite possible to accurately mine subjective opinions and arrive at replicable conclusions, which leaves moot the questions of whether the conclusions actually reflect any semblance of reality. Not only are we no closer to the truth of things than we were a 100 years ago, we are actually further away than ever before … and the gap is widening.

With apologies to the late Senator Moynihan, in the end, it is all opinion.

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